What I had expected to be writing this morning about Leveson is very different from how it all seems to be coming out, having heard Leveson himself actually announce his proposals. I had supposed that I would be writing of the Leveson inquiry as being the latest example of what has long seemed to me to be a ruinously expensive and on the whole pernicious phenomenon: the judge-led inquiry, appointed by a Prime Minister in political trouble in order to kick his problems into the long grass.
The results of these inquiries are often quietly shelved on their completion: but there was never any realistic prospect that that would happen to this one. To get himself out of one hole, Mr Cameron unwisely (so I thought) appointed someone who proceeded to dig a much deeper one for him to fall into, a hole, furthermore, in which I thought we might all dangerously find ourselves. The danger which I thought then that I would be warning against is exactly the same one the Prime Minister is in the fullness of time himself now warning against; take Leveson straight rather than watered down, he is saying, and we all “cross the rubicon” towards introducing statutory regulation, even licensing, of the Press, an interference with Press freedom which will in the end threaten all our liberties.
These anxieties had all been spelled out in a letter from a long list of Parliamentarians published in the Telegraph and the Guardian two days before the report’s publication:
“With the publication of the Leveson report on Thursday it is clear that the central issue will be whether the press should, for the first time, be subjected to statutory regulation or have the opportunity to put in place a new system of binding self-regulation.
“As Parliamentarians, we believe in free speech and are opposed to the imposition of any form of statutory control even if it is dressed up as underpinning. It is redress that is vital not broader regulation.
“The prospect of drafting legislation may have the dual benefit of exposing the dangers of the statutory regulation and at the same time focus the minds of those seeking to further strengthen the existing tough independent proposals.
“No form of statutory regulation of the press would be possible without the imposition of state licensing – abolished in Britain in 1695. State licensing is inimical to any idea of press freedom and would radically alter the balance of our unwritten constitution.”
There’s more, but that’s the nub of it. And now that Leveson has actually made his recommendations, some of those who signed this letter are already saying that his proposals are just what they were all afraid of. The list of names signing it included many of the Parliamentarians from all parties whose views I normally most respect. They include David Blunkett, Baroness Boothroyd, Julian Brazier, Bill Cash, David Davis, Lord Fellowes, Liam Fox, Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Baroness Neville-Jones, John Redwood, Gisela Stuart, Lord Trimble, Lord Wakeham, Lord Coe and Lord Tebbit. Some of these have already come out to deny in forthright terms Leveson’s claim that his recommendation for a law “underpinning” an independent press regulator “is not and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation”.
“Really?” sneered Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator; “He asks government to set the parameters under which the press will operate, and to punish the press if it fails to comply. No matter how Lord Justice Leveson presented it, he was proposing a form of state licensing of the press. And David Cameron was not fooled for a minute”.
But hang on: is that what Leveson was doing? Against what I would have thought would be my inclinations at this point, I find myself wondering about this. These are the main proposals in this area, as provided with bullet points by the Telegraph
• An independent regulator with the power to fine newspapers up to £1 million or one per cent of turnover for breaching a code of conduct.
• The new regulator is to be underpinned by statute to “protect the freedom of the press, to reassure the public and validate the new body”.
• Ofcom to carry out reviews every two years of how the new regulator is working and to act as backstop watchdog if publishers refuse to sign up to the new body.
• The Information Commissioner to be given greater powers to prosecute newspapers for breaches of data protection.
Where does it say the government will punish newspapers who transgress? Maybe it’s somewhere in the report itself. I haven’t read this 2,000 word tome, and I don’t suppose most of those now denouncing it have either. These are my first impressions; maybe on reflection my views will change.
All I know is that to my great astonishment, when I heard what seemed to me to be the Prime Minister’s effective demolition of any hope of making Leveson actually work in practice my heart sank, and when I then heard Nick Clegg saying that “we need to get on with this without delay” to ensure “that press laws protect victims”, and going on to declare that “He [Lord Leveson] has found that changing the law is the only way to guarantee a system of self-regulation which seeks to cover all of the press”, and that “changing the law is the only way to give us all the assurance that the new regulator isn’t just independent for a few months or years, but is independent for good”, I have to say that I found him unusually persuasive. I also thought Miliband made sense in his speech arguing for MPs to “put their trust in Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations” and for the proposals to be accepted in full.
I don’t believe that without legislation of some kind to encourage it, the press will ever get its act together to set up some kind of genuinely independent regulator which “has teeth”. Parts of the report will undoubtedly emerge which cannot be accepted as they stand. Fraser Nelson pointed one out: “Some publications, like The Spectator, would not sign up to state regulation on a point of principle. We’d consequently be punished by the threat of having to pay legal costs, even in successful court cases. We could, say, expose a terrorist front operating in London and be sued. And even if we won, we’d have to pay costs that could threaten to bankrupt the magazine.
“Even the Deputy Prime Minister, I understand, realises that this would only discourage the very investigative journalism that Lord Justice Leveson says he so admires. But it remains odd that the leader of the Liberal Democrats wants to regulate the press: one would have thought that the clue was in his party’s name.”
One part of the Prime Minister’s speech should be supported; his plea to do what has to be done with great care, not charging into a knee-jerk implementation of the full report without its full implications having become absolutely clear. Any legislation will have to iron out inequities like the one described by Fraser Nelson. This is a massive document which clearly ought to be taken very seriously indeed, but which needs to be calmly assessed. The problems posed by the press behaviour, especially by some tabloids, of the irresponsibility, even cruelty, that we have witnessed over the last few years have to be addressed firmly and effectively. We cannot let it continue. This time, it has to work: there must be no more defenceless victims. Mr Cameron’s caution is necessary, up to a point. But it should not be such that it undermines the whole operation. That is the danger now.